Placer mining (/ˈplæsər/ or /ˈpleɪsər/) is the mining of stream bed (alluvial) deposits for minerals. This may be done by open-pit (also called open-cast mining) or by various surface excavating equipment or tunnelling equipment.
- Sluice box
- Dry washing
- Gold dredge
- Underground mining
- Environmental effects
Placer mining is frequently used for precious metal deposits (particularly gold) and gemstones, both of which are often found in alluvial deposits—deposits of sand and gravel in modern or ancient stream beds, or occasionally glacial deposits. The metal or gemstones, having been moved by stream flow from an original source such as a vein, are typically only a minuscule portion of the total deposit. Since gems and heavy metals like gold are considerably more dense than sand, they tend to accumulate at the base of placer deposits.
The containing material may be too loose to safely mine by tunnelling, though it is possible where the ground is permanently frozen. Where water under pressure is available, it may be used to mine, move, and separate the precious material from the deposit, a method known as hydraulic mining, hydraulic sluicing or hydraulicking.
The word placer derives from the Spanish placer, meaning shoal or alluvial/sand deposit, from Catalan placer, (shoal), from plassa, (place) from Medieval Latin placea (place) the origin word for "place" and "plaza" in English. The word in Spanish is thus ultimately derived from placea and refers directly to an alluvial or glacial deposit of sand or gravel.
Placers supplied most of the gold for a large part of the ancient world. Hydraulic mining methods such as hushing were used widely by the Romans across their empire, but especially in the gold fields of northern Spain after its conquest by Augustus in 25 BC. One of the largest sites was at Las Médulas, where seven 30 mile long aqueducts were used to work the alluvial gold deposits through the first century AD. (Inclusions of platinum-group metals in a very large proportion of gold items indicate that the gold was largely derived from placer or alluvial deposits. Platinum group metals are seldom found with gold in hardrock reef or vein deposits.)
In North America, placer mining was famous in the context of several gold rushes, particularly the California Gold Rush and the Colorado Gold Rush, the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush.
Placer mining continues in many areas of the world as a source of diamonds, industrial minerals and metals, gems (in Myanmar and Sri Lanka), platinum, and of gold (in Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia).
An area well protected from the flow of water is a great location to find gold. Gold is very dense and is often found in a stream bed. Many different gold deposits are dealt with in different ways. Placer deposits attract many prospectors because their costs are very low. There are many different places gold could be placed, such as a residual, alluvial, and a bench deposit.
Residual deposits are more common where there has been weathering on rocks and where there hasn’t been water. They are deposits which have not been washed away yet or been moved. The residual usually lies at the site of the lode. This type of deposit undergoes rock weathering.
Alluvial or eluvial deposits sometimes have the largest gold deposit and are very common. This deposit is created when a force of nature moves or washes the gold away, but it doesn’t go into a stream bed. It contains pieces of ore that have been washed away from the lode. Alluvial deposits are the most common type of placer gold. This type of deposit occurs mostly in valleys.
Bench deposits are created when gold reaches a stream bed. Gold accumulations in an old stream bed that are high are called bench deposits. They can be found on higher slopes that drain into valleys. Dry stream beds (benches) can be situated far from other water sources and can sometimes be found on mountain tops. Today, many miners focus their activities on bench deposits.
A number of methods are used to mine placer gold and gems, both in terms of extracting the minerals from the ground, and separating it from the non-gold or non-gems.
The simplest technique to extract gold from placer ore is panning. In panning, some mined ore is placed in a large metal or plastic pan, combined with a generous amount of water, and agitated so that the gold particles, being of higher density than the other material, settle to the bottom of the pan. The lighter gangue material such as sand, mud and gravel are then washed over the side of the pan, leaving the gold behind. Once a placer deposit is located by gold panning, the miner usually shifts to equipment that can treat volumes of sand and gravel more quickly and efficiently.
A rocker box (or "cradle") is capable of greater volume than a gold pan, and it is more portable and requires less infrastructure than a sluice box, being fed not by a sluice but by hand. The box sits on rockers, which when rocked separates out the gold, and the practice was referred to as "rocking the golden baby".
The same principle may be employed on a larger scale by constructing a short sluice box, with barriers along the bottom called riffles to trap the heavier gold particles as water washes them and the other material along the box. This method better suits excavation with shovels or similar implements to feed ore into the device. Sluice boxes can be as short as a few feet, or more than ten feet (a common term for one that is over six feet +/- is a "Long Tom").
Sluicing is only effective in areas where there is a sufficient water supply, and is impractical in arid areas. Alternative methods developed that used the blowing of air to separate out gold from sand.
A trommel is composed of a slightly-inclined rotating metal tube (the 'scrubber section') with a screen at its discharge end. Lifter bars, sometimes in the form of bolted in angle iron, are attached to the interior of the scrubber section. The ore is fed into the elevated end of the trommel. Water, often under pressure, is provided to the scrubber and screen sections and the combination of water and mechanical action frees the valuable minerals from the ore. The mineral bearing ore that passes through the screen is then further concentrated in smaller devices such as sluices and jigs. The larger pieces of ore that do not pass through the screen can be carried to a waste stack by a conveyor.
Large-scale sifting of placer gold from large volumes of alluvial deposits can be done by use of mechanical dredges.
In areas where the ground is permanently frozen, such as in Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon, placer deposits may be mined underground. As the frozen ground is otherwise too hard and firm to mine by hand, historically fires were built so as to thaw the ground before digging it. Later methods involve blasting jets of steam ("points") into the frozen deposits.
Although not required, the process water may be continuously recycled and the ore from which the sought after minerals have been extracted ("the tailings") can be reclaimed. While these recycling and reclamation processes are more common in modern placer mining operations they are still not universally done.
In earlier times the process water was not generally recycled and the spent ore was not reclaimed. The remains of a Roman alluvial gold mine at Las Médulas are so spectacular as to justify the site being designated UNESCO World Heritage status. The methods used by the Roman miners are fully described by Pliny the Elder in his work Naturalis Historia published in about 77 AD. The author was a Procurator in the region and so probably witnessed large-scale hydraulic mining of the placer deposits there. He also added that the local lake Curacado had been heavily silted by the mining methods.
Environmental activists describe the hydraulic mining form of placer mining as environmentally destructive because of the large amounts of silt that it adds to previously clear running streams (also known as the "Dahlonega Method"). Most placer mines today use settling ponds, if only to ensure that they have sufficient water to run their sluicing operations.
In California, from 1853 to 1884, "hydraulicking" of placers removed an enormous amount of material from the gold fields, material that was carried downstream and raised the level of portions of the Central Valley by some seven feet in affected areas and settled in long bars up to 20 feet thick in parts of San Francisco Bay. The process raised an opposition calling themselves the "Anti-Debris Association". In January 1884, the North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company case banned the flushing of debris into streams, and the hydraulic mining mania in California's gold country came to an end.